The St Columba’s School, where Shah Rukh enrolled in kindergarten in January 1972 when he was six years old, is an imposing institution spread over several acres of south Delhi. Founded by the Indian Province of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, it was started on April 29, 1941 with 32 boys enrolled. The school’s reputation grew with its size. By 1955, the students numbered 2200, and a new building had been added.
The Irish Brothers were famous for discipline. Up to the late 1980s, corporal punishment was used at St Columba’s. Smaller children were spanked. Older ones were caned on their backsides — a few whacks meant sitting on a sweater or bag all day to cushion the cuts. And the eldest boys were rapped on their knuckles and fingertips. On cold winter days, the canes connecting with frozen fingertips caused immediate blisters. The Brothers hid canes in their robes. If a rule was broken, punishment was immediate and agonizing.
The school insisted on clipped nails and short hair. Anybody with hair over the designated length was sent from school to the barber on the sidewalk at the nearby Gole market. Shah Rukh, blessed with a dense, unruly mop made this trip often. It was seven-thirty am and the barber had usually just woken up. He had morning breath and eyes full of sleep but he began the haircut with the same question, ‘What style haircut do you want, Dharmendra or Amitabh Bachchan?’ Years later, Shah Rukh knew he had attained stardom when hair stylists told him that clients were asking for the Shah Rukh Khan cut.
<b1>The spectre of cane-carrying priests and the lengthy roster of rules at St Columba’s didn’t deter Shah Rukh. He was a master prankster. His best tricks were witty, audacious and usually put his budding acting talent to use. In the ninth grade, he borrowed an Amitabh Bachchan line from a film called Kaalia to convince a teacher that his parents and the school administration mistreated him. The teacher was his only tenuous support.
Considering this and his fragile mental state, he told her, she should allow him to skip some upcoming tests. ‘Mere liye toh oopar bhagwan hai, neeche aap. Beech mein Yamraj talwar le kar vaar kar raha hai,’ he said. ‘For me, God is above and you below. In between, Yamraj, the Lord of Death, is attacking me with his sword.’ The implication being that the teacher was the only one who could save him from destruction. She bought it and allowed him to miss the tests.
By the 11th grade, he was more daring. Once, when class got unbearably monotonous, Shah Rukh feigned an epileptic fit. He fell on the floor and started frothing at the mouth. His friends, in on the con, convinced the teacher, who happened to be wearing suede shoes, that the only way to rouse Shah Rukh was by making him smell a suede shoe. The teacher promptly volunteered his. Finally they carried him and the shoe out on the pretext of taking him to a doctor. They loitered outside school while the teacher hopped around with one shoe all day.
On occasions, when the joke went too far, Fatima was summoned to school to discuss her errant son. But Shah Rukh never crossed the line enough to invite suspension or expulsion. Good grades gave him leeway. So did his sporting activities: Shah Rukh played hockey, football and cricket and led the school teams in several sports. ‘He was a boundary breaker,’ said his middle school headmaster, Brother Eric d’ Souza, ‘but he was also smart enough to live on the edge and not get caught.’
Brother d’ Souza was the resident rock star at St Columba’s. He stretched the definition of both teacher and priest and was a seminal influence in Shah Rukh’s life. Eric was in his twenties but being younger than other teachers wasn’t his only distinguishing feature. Eric had long hair and he played the guitar.
In charge of several co-curricular activities, he hung out with the boys after school and gave their adolescent angst a sympathetic ear. Students could gather in his room for a dose of music and advice. Eric initiated them into the latest Western chartbusters including Pink Floyd’s excitingly subversive Another Brick in the Wall. He remembered each boy by his first name. He was brimming with new, dynamic ideas. Eric introduced computers to the school, writing a textbook for the students himself.
But the priest was no slouch in the severity department. He insisted on academic brilliance and caned students when they fell short of their potential. If a student was capable of getting 95 out of 100 marks, 90 were not good enough. Eric, who was nicknamed kauwa or crow by the boys because he had a hook nose and dark skin, tried to instill in them the necessity of thinking out of the box and continuously raising the bar. He was equal parts nightmare and role model.
In 1983, Eric cast Shah Rukh in his first major role: that of the wizard in a musical called The Wiz, based on The Wizard of Oz. There was stiff competition but Shah Rukh got the role because, Eric said, ‘he was versatile and had enough self-belief to be goofy if necessary.’ Shah Rukh had so much confidence that he even attempted to sing the songs in the musical but he couldn’t pull it off. Eric, who had a soaring, sonorous voice, and another boy Palash Sen who would grow up to be a famous vocalist, were Shah Rukh’s first playback singers (that is they actually sung the songs, which he lip-synched on stage).
The highlight of Shah Rukh’s school days was the creation of a ‘gang.’ On September 9, 1984, eighteen-year-old Shah Rukh and four of his closest friends formed the C-Gang. The C stood for cool. Coolness was the group’s mission, function and reason for being. The boys worked toward it. Vivek Khushalani was the rich kid. His father brought T-shirts from America for the gang. Each shirt had the C-Gang logo and the member’s name at the back. Raman Sharma’s cousin, a graphic designer, created the logo. She painted a tiny but visible ‘C-Gang’ on their white uniforms so that even in school their special status was underlined. The other members were Bikash Mathur and Shah Rukh’s closest friend Ashok Vassan. Outside school, the designated C-Gang uniform was gray Nike shoes, blue jeans and white T-shirts. The boys had laminated identity cards made in a shop in Connaught Place for 25 rupees (50 cents) each. The cards had a picture of the bearer and the date the gang was started, 9-9-84.
The dictatorial Brothers allowed the C-Gang to thrive at St Columba’s perhaps because it was mostly innocuous posturing. Drugs, alcohol, sex were still not the adolescent rite of passage that they would become a decade later in Delhi. The C-Gang’s rebellion was confined to being cool.
Even when the boys broke rules, it was always just short of being illegal. One night, they ran away from their respective homes — each one said he was spending the night at another person’s house. For a few hours, they watched planes land from a spot near the Delhi airport called Jumbo Point. The police found them playing hockey on the road and detained them until dawn. This was the extent of their teen spirit.
All five boys came from different backgrounds. Raman’s father was a pilot. Vivek’s was a businessman who manufactured equipment for oil and gas wells. But these disparities were rarely discussed. They hung out at Nirula’s cafe in Chanakyapuri and played video games for twenty-five paise (a fraction of a cent) each in the basement of the Chanakya movie theater. For these outings, they pooled their meager pocket monies.
When they could, they went bowling at the Qutab Hotel bowling alley. They could rarely afford five star hotels and nobody talked about whose father was richer. The boys went to parties dressed in identical C-gang clothes and often forced the other dancers off the floor by doing the moonwalk and break dancing. They spoke in language left over from Hollywood films: ‘Yo,’ ‘Yaooza’ and ‘Hang ten!’ were favorite expressions.
Hollywood was the sacred source of all that was trendy. Made-in-USA labels were fiercely desired status symbols. Not all the C-Gang members were affluent enough to go abroad — Shah Rukh didn’t travel West until he was 28 years old. But like city youth across the country, they imbibed the talk, walk and attitude from American films....
In January 1985, Shah Rukh graduated from St Columba’s. He was given the Sword of Honor, the school’s highest award, presented to the student who excels in academics as well as sports and co-curricular activities. Shah Rukh, then 19, was the star of the year.
The rigid Christian environment of St Columba’s and the friendships he cultivated over thirteen years set Shah Rukh in a Westernized mold. He was articulate, erudite and in many ways, already the yuppie that he would play in films after a decade. But that was not the whole story.
Shah Rukh’s urbane sheen and sophisticated English was leavened by a rough earthiness. One of the earliest film directors to hire him was an art house auteur named Mani Kaul. He was adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Though Mani Kaul felt that Shah Rukh had too much of a ‘baby face’ to play the sinister Rogozhin, he still cast him because he found Shah Rukh ‘a strange mix of someone beautiful and slimy.’ Shah Rukh was equal parts sophisticated haute bourgeois and lumpen ruffian.
This was appropriate to the city he grew up in. Delhi is a peculiar mix of urban and rural. Posh housing colonies stand next to villages. In some areas, only a stretch of road divides sprawling homes worth millions of rupees from mud hutments. The crumbling ruins of earlier centuries jut out at impossible angles reminding residents of the rich history of the city: the earliest architectural relics in Delhi date back to 300 B.C. Delhi has been the capital city of seven empires and in it, several cities collide: the New Delhi built by savvy Punjabi businessmen who arrived during Partition; the old Delhi of Mughal emperors; the colonial Delhi designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens; and the rustic Delhi, coarse and brutal like the neighboring states of Haryana and Uttar Pradesh.
At St Columba’s, Shah Rukh was the unfailingly courteous diligent student. His seventh grade teacher Savita Raisingh recalled showing Shah Rukh’s meticulously neat, indexed homework to other students as an example. Every day, on the bus ride home, he would help her carry her books. But Shah Rukh was equally fluent in the more uncouth culture that flourished outside.
Hindi gaalis or curse words peppered his language. Fights were not uncommon. Shah Rukh saw knives pulled and blood flow. He followed Meer’s golden rule: if the opponent is bigger, hit him on the head with a rock and run.
When he was twelve years old, Shah Rukh went to the Uphaar cinema in Green Park to see the Amitabh Bachchan film Parvarish (Upbringing). Two friends were with him. Tickets were sold out and the three boys started negotiating with the black market man outside the theater. They were surprised when he offered to sell them tickets at the regular theater sale price.
The boys agreed and Shah Rukh went with the scalper into the underground parking lot to conduct the transaction. But the regular-priced tickets had a hidden cost. In the darkness of the parking lot, the scalper unzipped his pants and asked for a favor.
Shah Rukh was initially afraid. He ran away. But later on, he and his friends had a good laugh enacting the scene. The incident did not damage Shah Rukh. ‘It wasn’t a moment that scarred me or even made an impression,’ Shah Rukh said, ‘it was all part of growing up.’ He imagined that the man is perhaps still a scalper, selling tickets now for Shah Rukh Khan films.